Winter Trees and Shrubs: Tulip Tree

At first glance, a tulip and a tulip tree couldn’t be more different. One is a bulb that puts out fleshy, green leaves in the spring, topped with colorful, cup-shaped flowers, barely reaching a foot or so tall. The other is a massive, deciduous tree with a broad, straight trunk that can grow to nearly 200 feet tall. But if you can get a look at the flowers, seed heads, and even the leaves of this enormous tree, you might see a resemblance – at least in the shape of these features – to one of our most popular spring flowering geophytes.

Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is distributed across the eastern United States and has been planted widely outside of its native range. Also commonly known as tulip poplar, yellow poplar, and whitewood, it is a member of the magnolia family and is one of two species in its genus (the other being Liriodendron chinense – a tree found mainly in China). Many (if not most) deciduous trees of North America have small, inconspicuous flowers, but tulip trees – like its close relatives, the magnolias – have relatively large, showy flowers. The trouble is actually getting to see them since, at least on mature trees, they are borne in a canopy that is considerably taller than the average human.

Tulip tree flowers are cup-shaped, yellow-green and orange, with a series of prominent stamens surrounding the carpels which are attached to a long, slender receptacle giving it a cone-shaped appearance. As the flower matures into fruits, the tulip shape of the inflorescence is maintained as the seeds with their wing-like appendages form a tight, cone-like cluster that opens as the seeds reach maturity. The wings aid in dispersal as the seeds fall from the “cone” throughout the winter.

seed head of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

The four-lobed leaves of tulip trees also form a vague tulip shape. They are alternately arranged, bright green, and up to five or six inches long and wide, turning yellow in the fall. Two prominent, oval-shaped stipules surround the stem at the base of the petiole of each leaf. These stipules come into play when identifying the leafless twigs of tulip trees during the winter months.

leaf of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in late summer

The winter twigs of tulip trees are easily recognizable thanks to their duck bill shaped buds which are made up of two wine-red, violet, or greenish bud scales. The terminal buds are considerably larger and longer than the lateral buds, some of which are on little stalks. The twigs are smooth, olive-brown or red-brown, with just a few, scattered, white lenticels. Leaf scars are rounded with a dozen or so bundle scars that are either scattered or form an irregular ellipse. Pronounced stipule scars encircle the twig at the location of each leaf scar. Twigs can be cut lengthwise to reveal pale white pith that is separated by a series of diaphragms.

winter twig of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
top right: the chambered pith of black walnut (Juglans nigra); bottom left: diaphragmed pith of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

The bark of tulip trees can be easily confused with that of ash trees. Young bark is smooth and ash-gray to grayish green with pale, vertical cracks. As the tree matures, the cracks develop into furrows with flat-topped ridges. The ridges grow taller and more peaked, and the furrows grow deeper as the tree reaches maturity. In the book Winter Botany, William Trelease compares the mature bark of tulip trees to a series of parallel mountain ranges with deep gullies on either side.

maturing bark of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Perhaps even as tulips are blooming, the buds of tulip trees break to reveal their tulip-shaped, stipule bearing leaves. This makes for an interesting show. In The Book of Forest and Thicket, John Eastman describes it this way: “from terminal buds shaped like duck bills, successions of bills within bills uncurl and unfold, revealing a marvel of leaf packaging.”

More Winter Trees and Shrubs:


The photos of tulip tree were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

Out Now! Dispersal Stories #1

Before I started this blog, I had spent 16 years publishing zines at a steady clip and sending them to all corners of the world through the mail. I had never really meant to abandon zines altogether, and in some ways, putting all my writing efforts into a blog felt a little like a betrayal. My intention had always been to one day put together another zine. Now, six and a half years later, I’m happy to report that day has come.

Rather than bring an old zine back from the grave, I decided to make a new zine. Thus, Dispersal Stories #1. It’s quite a bit different from zines I’ve made in the past, which were generally more personal and, I guess, ranty. In fact, Dispersal Stories is very much like this blog, largely because it is mostly made up of writing that originally appeared here, but also because its main focus (for now) is plants. What sets it apart is that, unlike this blog, it zeroes in on a specific aspect of plants. As the title suggests, it’s all about dispersal. For much of their life, plants are essentially sessile. Once they are rooted in place, they rarely go anywhere else. But as seeds, spores, or some other sort of propagule they are actually able to move around quite a bit. The world is their oyster. What’s happening during this period of their lives is the focus of Dispersal Stories.

But why do a zine about this? Apart from just wanting to do another zine after all these years, my hope is that Dispersal Stories will be the start of a much more ambitious project. A book perhaps. My interest in dispersal was born out of my interest in weeds, and there is so much that I would like to learn and share about both of these subjects – so much so that the blog just doesn’t really cut it. So, I’m expanding the Awkward Botany empire. First a zine, then a book, then … who knows? I’m an oyster! (Or something like that.)

Dispersal Stories #1 is available in our etsy shop, or you can contact me here and we can work something out. While you’re at it, check out our new sticker.

If you love looking at plants and learning their names, then you probably enjoy doing it any chance you get. Usually it’s an activity you do while walking, but who says you can’t botanize while riding a bike? This sticker is inspired by a friend who once said that while mountain biking you get to “see three times as many flowers in half the time!” Stick it on your bike or in some other prominent location to remind yourself and others that we can botanize anytime anywhere.

Your purchase of one or both of these items helps support what we do. You can also support us by buying us a ko-fi or putting money in our donorbox. Sharing these posts also helps us out. If you get a copy of the zine, let us know what you think by sending us an email, a message on twitter or facebook, or by leaving a comment below. As always, thanks for reading.

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